The servers at the new Webster Groves wine bar and café Robust wear T-shirts the color of milk chocolate, some of which are printed with the restaurant's name, others with equally descriptive adjectives: luscious, mellow, generous. Do these words describe each server's personality? I don't know. If so, based on my experiences there, they might consider adding "friendly," "knowledgeable" and "not quite as efficient as you'd like."
In fact, the T-shirts are part of Robust's concept: The long wine list is divided into eight categories based on each wine's profile rather than its varietal or origin. There are "crisp," "luscious" and "mellow" whites, and "soft-hearted," "generous" and "robust" reds. There are also "sweet and stickies" and, of course, "bubbles."
Each category has been assigned a numeral, 1 through 8, and each dish on the menu is numbered with the category or categories that would pair well with it. So, for example, a serving of the very mildly funky Spanish goat's-milk cheese cana de cabra gets a 1 and a 2, for sparkling wine and crisp whites — and it goes beautifully with the citric notes of the Las Brisas, a blend of sauvignon blanc, verdejo and viora.
Robust's conceit isn't new. The wine bar at Monarch arranges its list in this manner, for instance. And Robust's approach is a tad busy. While Monarch lists wines and dishes to pair with them on facing pages, Robust lists them on separate pages, necessitating a fair amount of flipping back and forth to match category numbers with corresponding wines. Still, it's a welcome change from your standard red/white or California/France/Other list.
Owner Stanley Browne, a certified sommelier, has curated that list with care, offering an eclectic, if not exhaustive, selection that avoids two common wine-list pitfalls: too many overpriced low-end wines you can find at your local supermarket, and high-end wines like cult California cabernets that are chosen solely for their trophy status.
Even better, you're certain to find a wine to match your budget — if not an entire bottle, then certainly a glass. The generous by-the-glass selection, with representatives from each of the eight categories, includes good examples of familiar varietals (like the rich Liberty School chardonnay) but also those that are still outside the mainstream, such as Austria's crisp, mineral Nigl grüner veltliner.
A six-ounce pour of most wines costs less than $10, and more than a few hover around $6. If you'd like to try one of the more expensive wines by the glass (the Ayres pinot noir from Oregon, for example, which offers a surprising depth of flavor given its relatively light body and costs $12.50 for a standard pour), or if you want to sample several wines without needing to call a cab, you can order a three-ounce tasting for half the price.
With so much wine from which to choose — and even a glossary of wine terminology at the back of the menu to browse — food might seem like an afterthought. Robust's layout reinforces the impression. The large, attractive bar dominates the main room, with a few dining tables to either side; behind the bar is an impressive display of the bottles for the by-the-glass selection, attached to an inert gas-based preservation apparatus. Wine, coffee and related merchandise are available for sale at the rear of the main room.
There is a more traditional dining room tucked behind the dining room, but I preferred to sit in the main room. And the menu, devised by chef Greg Maggi, a veteran of the Zodiac Room at Plaza Frontenac's Nieman-Marcus and Pujols 5 Westport Grill, works best as a complement to wine.
I already mentioned the cana de cabra, one of a dozen or so cheeses and cured meats available in small portions that are perfect as an appetizer, even better as a snack. My favorite cheese was the fourme d'Ambert, a medium-strength cow's milk blue cheese; it toed that fine line between being distinctive and overwhelming the taste of your wine. Among the meat selections, I sampled the bresaola (air-dried beef) and a richly flavored, if standard-issue, country pâté. Your cheese and cured meat are served atop a wooden board with a scattering of dried fruits and, if you're lucky, Spanish marcona almonds.
Another worthy appetizer is the "Robust" chowder, thick but not overwhelmed by cream; in fact, the flavor struck me as ideally balanced between the sweetness of corn and shrimp and the peppery brawn of andouille. I also liked the spinach-crab spread, which had a much stronger crab flavor than this dish usually does, as well as an unfussy arrangement of plump, tender asparagus with prosciutto, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and just the slightest touch of truffle oil.
This being a wine bar, there are flatbreads. The crust on the flatbread I tried had a good chew to it, if not an especially distinctive flavor. The toppings — blue cheese, sausage and arugula — made up for that.
In general, portions at Robust are small, even for the dishes that sound like traditional entrées. This might frustrate you if you want a full meal, but it's ideal for the wine-bar experience. On two visits my wife and I ordered a bunch of stuff to share; on another we followed the basic starter-soup/salad-entrée pattern but finished feeling pleasantly full, not stuffed.
Those more entrée-like dishes were hit-or-miss. A single roasted chicken breast had crisp skin and tender meat; a thin apple-riesling reduction provided an accent of sweetness. The menu description of the dish mentioned pancetta, but I tasted none. On the other hand, the menu should have mentioned that the chardonnay-infused shrimp with wasabi were served cold. The shrimp were decent specimens; unsurprisingly, the wasabi flavor was much stronger than the chardonnay.
Herb-encrusted salmon was really a salmon fillet seasoned, not "encrusted," with herbs. This was a nice piece of fish cooked half a minute too long, hinting at the unpleasant taste of overcooked salmon. A portion of flatiron steak in a cabernet jus was tender, but the meat's flavor was lost in the jus, which bore a generically beefy, slightly bitter flavor, like canned beef broth.
Desserts include the usual suspects: flourless chocolate cake, carrot cake, crème brûlée. The carrot cake was average, the cake itself decent but the topping too heavy on whipped cream, too light on cream cheese. The crème brûlée offered an interesting twist, with three small custards — your standard vanilla along with chocolate and pear-anise — rather than one. I liked the chocolate best; the pear-anise offered a welcome departure from the standard version, though its pear flavor was rather faint.
If Robust's menu as a whole doesn't vary too much from standard wine-bar offerings, that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is food meant to be shared, a component of an evening out, like good company and good conversation. The wine is what brings it all together. Which is what my T-shirt would say.